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Opera Sings on the World’s Mobile Devices

An interview with Dag Olav Norem, Opera Vice President of Products, Mobile & Devices

More than 50 million mobile phone users on every continent on the globe, on all types of phones, use an Opera product to browse the Web. With the deals Opera announced at the Mobile World Congress, that number is going to keep going up. But the event that got the most attention for Opera at MWC was their demo of Opera Mini for iPhone — a browser they hope to get approved by Apple and offered in the Apple App Store. Benchmark caught up with Dag Olav Norem, Opera’s vice president of products, mobile and devices, after his return from Barcelona to talk about Opera, browser performance, and the prospects for Opera Mini in the App Store.

Benchmark: Can you tell us a little about your role at Opera?

Dag Olav Norem: I’m responsible for product management for our products for mobile phones and any type of gadget or device — TV, set-top boxes, game consoles. So all of the products that you see — Opera Mobile, Opera Mini and our device SDK we’re responsible for those product areas.

Benchmark: So what’s your takeaway from the Mobile Word Congress in Barcelona? What did you see that got you excited? What got you worried?

Dag Olav Norem: I was discussing with a colleague that those of us in Barcelona are actually the last ones to know what’s actually going on in Barcelona because we’re so tied up. So I catch up on all of the news from Barcelona once I get back home.

Doing the rounds a bit, obviously Barcelona is huge and there’s everything from networks to services and everything in between and around. One major announcement was the wholesale application community. It feels a bit thin yet, and not finished, but from our perspective, that was very important to us because that and other things around it shows a continued focus around service application development for mobile phones. And particularly that initiative says a lot about the drive toward finding some kind of standard across platforms.

It’s funny, every time someone launches a new platform, like Google did when they launched Android, they talked about how fantastic this platform is and how it’s going to help reduce fragmentation. And it’s funny to hear that because a new platform in itself is fragmentation.

So seeing more drive towards something that is going to be more cross-platform —and naturally browser technology is a very obvious choice to achieve those kind of goals — that’s a big deal for us.

Now going around the other companies, Windows 7 Mobile was out, obviously a big, big announcement there, probably one of the major news stories that came out of the conference. We’ll see. The question is, is it too little too late?

Benchmark: Right, so they’re basically starting over.

Dag Olav Norem: Yes. We’ll see. I’ll give them credit for starting over, because what they had really needed an overhaul. Android is, of course, doing really well. There are versions coming out all over the place. You have to wonder at what point the OEMs are going to start understanding that they’re losing all of their differentiation and they’re turning into Dell. Sooner or later there’s going to be so many Android devices that having an Android in itself, which initially was differentiation — we’re right at the point now where it’s not. So we’ll see how that develops. But for right now Android is doing very well as a platform.

Benchmark: So you feel Android could make OEMs feel like they’re turning into Dells?

Dag Olav Norem: If I was an OEM, I would be worried about creating a future where I’m creating a box that contains the exact same platform as all of my competitors.

Benchmark: Right. So you’re reduced to the form factor and the kinds of buttons you put on it and the interface as well?

Dag Olav Norem: Yes, that’s what you end up competing with. And you see someone like HTC doing a really good job of that. HTC has always been a company that has created good hardware. So they’re doing well in that market. The first Android phone was differentiated, but now there’s starting to be so many that we’ll see what they’re up to next.

Benchmark: What was your impression of WAC, the Wholesale Application Consortium, which was announced in Barcelona?

Dag Olav Norem: That announcement seemed like something that came out of some executive cooperation and someone drafted up a press release. It didn’t have much detail in it. But it’s obvious to anyone that if these operators want to create a platform or a development platform that’s across all operating systems and devices, then the only good fit is the browser.

Benchmark: Yes, the browser seems to become more and more the key the further down the road we go, which is good for Opera, right?

Dag Olav Norem: Well, it’s good for everybody.

Benchmark: So how was the show for Opera? You had the big preview of your Opera iPhone browser, and what else?

Dag Olav Norem: We had a very good event actually; we all agreed it’s the best one we’ve had. In terms of announcements, we don’t generally time product announcements to the congress itself, but what we did announce this time around was that we are working on a version of Opera Mini for iPhone. That itself was a very good announcement for us. We got a lot of interest.

Benchmark: Yes, there was a lot of buzz out of that one.

Dag Olav Norem: And among other news, we announced that we’ve crossed 50 million active monthly users for Opera Mini. We had a number of new operator deals for Opera Mini, with MTS in Russia, Telkomsel in Indonesia and Smart Communications in the Philippines, which were announced that week. So it was a good week.

Benchmark: OK, so what is the story about Opera for iPhone?

Dag Olav Norem: So what we announced is that we are working on a version of Opera Mini for the iPhone and that we would show it and demonstrate it at Mobile World Congress, and that’s what we did at the event.

If you look on the mobile side we have two main products, there’s Opera Mobile and Opera Mini. All of our products, across the board, are based on the same browser engine and the same core rendering engine.

The difference between Opera Mobile and Opera Mini is that with Mini, we take that browser engine and we put it on the server, and that server downloads the Web pages and transcodes them to a very lightweight markup language — compressed language — and sends it to a very thin client on the phone.

So the advantage is that this client is much smaller, so it can be much more easily ported to different operating systems. It’s a simpler client as such. It requires less CPU, less dependencies on the operating system. So, for example, we can port it to Java.

There are some disadvantages in terms of very complex Web sites that may not work as optimally. On the other hand it’s going to be much, much faster because we compress everything 90 percent and it requires less CPU to run, and also it can run on much simpler phones.

So we don’t need a smartphone operating system to support Opera Mini.

What we announced was Opera Mini for the iPhone. This product is an iPhone version for the iPhone OS, but otherwise it’s the exact same product, Opera Mini.

On the iPhone it runs even better just because the iPhone is so fast — the hardware is really good, the touch screen is fantastic — and so the experience is even better on the iPhone than on any other phone, but otherwise it’s the same product.

Benchmark: And the reason you think that you’ll be able to get Apple to approve it is because it’s such a thin client it’s technically not adding another browser to the iPhone?

Dag Olav Norem: In the SDK terms, Apple has this clause that says that it’s not allowed to develop any applications that can interpret code, in development environments inside the application. Examples of that are Flash, Java and browsers, they would fall into that category. But the Opera Mini client we have built using the Apple SDK does not interpret code. Opera Mobile would, but Opera Mini doesn’t, because all of that execution is happening on the server side.

So we are quite confident that we’re not breaking any of Apple’s terms. That means we’re following the rules that they’ve set down for SDK. That doesn’t mean the application will be approved. Apple still reserves the right to approve or reject pretty much anything they want.

So all we can do is develop a great application and submit it and that’s what we’re in the process of doing. We do hope that Apple won’t deny their users a choice when it comes to browsers. The feedback we’ve been getting is fantastic and we hope Apple will let their users get this application.

Benchmark: OK, we’ll be looking for it in the App Store. Meantime, can you tell us a bit about Opera’s different strategies internationally, particularly for the developing world. It appears you want to become the world’s browser.

Dag Olav Norem: So yes, when it comes to our user base, it is definitely very strong in emerging markets — in Russia, Indonesia, India, South Africa — which we think is great, and we’re very excited to see that kind of growth.

In terms of our strategy: Opera’s vision is to be the best Internet experience on any device. That vision has been solid for probably 10 years or more, and that is what we try to do, provide the best Internet experience on any device.

So whether it’s a smartphone or not, doesn’t really matter to us. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re working on the Opera Mini for Java, or iPhone, or delivering Opera Mobile on a Windows Mobile phone, or some proprietary operating system for an OEM. It’s just the best Internet experience on any device. That’s what it comes down to.

Benchmark: And more and more of that experience is happening on a mobile device.

Dag Olav Norem: Yes, I’m very confident of that. You know, we have more downloads of Opera Mini than we have unique users of the product page on www.opera.com. People don’t use the PC browsers. They first read about our product and then just download it with their phone.

Benchmark: Interesting.

Dag Olav Norem: Yes, and we’re very excited to be able to basically give people that tool to get online. PCs have been a fantastic invention that really boosted productivity in people’s lives and the technology revolution in general. PCs are great, but the Internet is even bigger. And it doesn’t depend on PCs. A lot of markets we’re in, the mobile phone is the first way to get online and will remain the primary way to connect to the Internet.

Benchmark: If your goal is to create the best Internet experience for everyone, how do you define that? What are your user experience goals?

Dag Olav Norem: It’s actually an area that we’ve put a lot of effort into. When it comes to a browser you can look at it roughly, without trying to get too technical, in three layers. There’s a porting layer, an interface for the operating system; and on top of that you’ll have the core browser engine that renders the Web pages; and then on top of that, you’ll have your user interface.

So let’s talk about ‘on any device.’ When getting on any device it means porting the browser to a lot of different operating systems, a lot of different platforms, and delivering on different devices and form factors and all of that.

So we started going cross-platform, I think, back in 1997 and 1998, right around 10 years ago, and have ever since focused on continuously improving our product and the core browser, and making it more portable.

That’s one of the advantages someone like Apple has — they only have one operating system, one form factor, with one screen resolution. It’s great for them. It reduces their complexity. Someone like Nokia has much more variance to deal with and someone like Opera, it’s even worse, because we have so many operating systems and customers.

So we focus on making the core browser portable, but the user interface we implemented on each platform using the native toolkit on each platform. Five or ten years ago that was okay because the user interface was a significant effort, but it wasn’t prohibitive. But now, devices have become so complex or advanced, and user expectations are so high, that the user interface part of the applications is turning into a very big part of the total code and where we spend our time.

And re-implementing that on every single operating system is a lot of work. We found we were spending too much time re-implementing the same features — we got spread too thin.

So over the course of the past year and a half, we created a new user interface porting layer that’s cross-platform, so whenever we port the browsers, that comes with it. We put a lot of effort into creating one fantastic mobile browser UI. So when you see our product now, if you see Opera Mini for iPhone, Opera Mini for Java, or Opera Mobile for Series 60, or Groove, any of them — they will all look and feel the same and they’re running the same user interface code.

Benchmark: So what are the biggest obstacles you face in trying to get universal adoption for Opera or Opera Mini on everybody’s mobile device?

Dag Olav Norem: From one standpoint, I wouldn’t say that becoming 'the' universal browser is a goal in itself. Of course we want to become bigger, we want a larger market share, and the way to do that is build great products. I do feel that what we’re coming out now with Opera Mini 5, Opera Mobile 10, on multiple platforms, we managed to lift our portfolio quite significantly over the course of the last year or so.

Benchmark: Okay. Let’s talk about performance. How do you quantify, how do you measure how fast your browser is?

Dag Olav Norem: So when it comes to browsers there are a number of different performance tests out there that will test different aspects of the browser, like Javascript, or download, or different areas like that, and obviously we use those.

The one essential measurement, though, is page loading speeds. You can mess with Javascript or certain calculations, and measure differences between browsers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the user will be able to tell the difference.

So our primary measurement is page loading speeds. And we have our own test suite set up for this to try to minimize all of the variables of mobile networks, and Internet networks as well. So it’s something we focus on.

Every night the builds are run through automatic tests to catch if anything causes the browser to go slower, and we continue to focus on profiling different aspects of the browser to optimize the speed. It’s just that continuous process, where you pick up one thing here, another thing there and you just keep going and going and going.

So yes, performance is a key benchmark for us — user experience and performance. Speed was our essential selling point for the PC browsers all through the earlier years of 1996, 1997, 1998, until today.

Benchmark: Very good. Okay, so looking into your crystal ball what do you think the big trends will be in mobile in the next five to ten years?

Dag Olav Norem: From a mobile perspective, the fact that so many people will have a mobile phone as their primary, if not only, device for accessing the Internet, I’m quite confident that will shape how services are developed over time. That’s one important one to watch. Another is connected devices. There’s been a lot of talk about convergence, and it’s true that every device I have probably does more, covers a broader range of functionality than five years ago. But on the other hand, I still own more devices now than I did five years ago. So the number of connected devices over the course of five years, I think, will have huge growth and you’ll see connectivity show up in types of devices that we don’t see today.

Benchmark: And no doubt, Opera will be there, too. Thank you Dag, for your time, and good luck.

About Dag Olav Norem

Dag Olav Norem is Opera’s vice president for products, mobile & internet devices. He is responsible for the company’s roadmap for all non-desktop products — Opera Mobile, Opera Mini, and Opera Devices SDK — as well as deliveries to operator and OEM customers in the mobile and connected consumer electronics space. He previously worked at Opera from 2001 to 2005, heading product management for Opera Mobile, promoting Opera and building relationships with many of Opera’s top handset and device OEMs.

Prior to re-joining Opera, Dag served as the VP of product management, mobile, for leading research and metrics firm comScore Networks. Before comScore, Dag served as senior product manager, mobile, for Yahoo!. Dag is an accomplished nature photographer with a portfolio at www.don.no.

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